Radiation therapy (also known as radiotherapy) uses targeted, high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. The goal of radiation therapy is to kill any cancer that might be left in or around the breast after surgery.
Radiation therapy after surgery is an option for most women who have:
Radiation therapy is often given to women who are treated with lumpectomy (also called breast conserving surgery) for DCIS.
In rare cases, radiation therapy is given to women treated with mastectomy for DCIS.
Learn more about treatment for DCIS.
For a summary of research studies on lumpectomy plus radiation therapy in the treatment of DCIS, visit the Breast Cancer Research Studies section.
For most women, radiation therapy is recommended after lumpectomy since much of the breast tissue is left intact.
Women who get radiation therapy after lumpectomy have a 50 percent lower risk of breast cancer recurrence and a 20 percent lower risk of breast cancer death compared to women who get lumpectomy alone .
Many women who have a mastectomy do not benefit from radiation therapy. However, in some cases, radiation is used after mastectomy to treat the chest wall and the lymph nodes in the underarm area (axillary nodes) and around the collarbone.
Not everyone can have radiation therapy. Being pregnant or having certain health conditions can make radiation therapy harmful.
Women who have breast implants (saline or silicone) can usually have radiation therapy. However, implants can make radiation therapy planning more complex.
Radiation therapy can cause scarring and hardening of the implant, leading to a less natural look. In rare cases, the implant may need to be removed before radiation therapy begins.
If your treatment plan includes mastectomy, radiation therapy and breast reconstruction, discuss possible risks with your breast surgeon and radiation oncologist.
Learn more about breast reconstruction.
Radiation therapy is carefully planned and precisely given. Your treatment is tailored to your breast cancer and your body.
Learn about planning and treatment sessions for radiation therapy.
Radiation therapy has some short-term side effects (such as skin tenderness) and for some women, long-term side effects (such as lymphedema).
Learn more about side effects of radiation therapy.
New radiation therapy techniques may shorten the length of treatment. These are being studied in clinical trials.
Learn more about emerging areas in radiation therapy.
Learn more about clinical trials.
Learn more about talking with your health care provider.
Although the exact treatment for breast cancer varies from person to person, treatment guidelines help ensure quality care. These guidelines are based on the latest research and the consensus of experts.
The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) are three respected organizations that regularly update and post their radiation therapy guidelines online. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) also has overviews of treatment options.
Breast cancer treatment is most effective when all parts of the treatment plan are followed.
It is important to follow the treatment plan prescribed by your health care provider in terms of:
Radiation therapy after lumpectomy lowers the risk of breast cancer recurrence and increases the chances of survival [4,13]. In most cases, it is recommended after lumpectomy.
Radiation therapy for early breast cancer usually involves treatment five days a week for three to seven weeks. Getting to and from the treatment center this many times can be hard, especially if you live far away or, if children or elderly family members rely on you to take care of them.
If you need a ride to and from treatment or help with child care or elder care, there are often resources that can help. Family and friends often want to help, but do not know how. These are ways they can help you. Some organizations offer programs to assist with transportation or costs related to transportation, child care and elder care. Others offer lodging if you need a place to stay overnight so that you can get treatment.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help from your co-survivors or contact organizations that offer help with transportation, lodging, child care or elder care. It is very important to complete your radiation therapy without gaps or delays.
Learn more about the importance of following your breast cancer treatment plan.
Komen Support Resources
Interactive Treatment Navigation Tool
Breast Cancer 101 - Radiation Therapy
Radiation Therapy Video
Facts for Life: Radiation Therapy and Side Effects
Questions to Ask Your Doctor on Radiation Therapy
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